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Hundreds of Turkish troops crossed into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq overnight, Iraqi officials said on Tuesday. A senior Iraqi military source said 300 lightly-armed Turkish troops had crossed the border and moved 1-2 miles deeper into Iraq on Tuesday morning in the Gali Rash area, a mountainous district near the border.
On Monday Turkey’s military defended its weekend attacks on suspected PKK Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq and denied that it had bombed civilian targets.
In a rare statement, the general staff said the raids early on Sunday were successful. “All the planned targets were hit,” it said, adding that the extent of the damage inflicted on the PKK was being evaluated.
The statement was made after the Turkish military undertook its largest cross-border operation in several years in pursuit of PKK rebels who have carried out a series of deadly attacks inside Turkey in recent weeks. Up to 50 forays were made by fighter jets from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, backed by land forces, according to Turkish media reports.
The military rejected claims that it had targeted civilians in the attacks on suspected PKK bases in the mountains that straddle the Turkish-Iraqi border, amid claims that a woman was killed. “Such statements serve the interests of the PKK terrorist organisation,” the statement said. Both the government and the military insist any cross-border raids target only the PKK.
In Washington, the Pentagon said it had cleared air space over the targeted areas to allow Turkish combat aircraft to carry out their mission. A US embassy spokesman in Ankara told the Associated Press: “It was a Turkish operation; it was a Turkish decision.”
Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said the US wanted to ensure any Turkish military action in northern Iraq was carried out “in an appropriate way, [to] hit only the PKK and avoid civilian casualties and other loss of life”.
He added that Turkey and Iraq should co-ordinate on putting the PKK “out of business”, since it was a “common enemy” for each country, as well as for the US.
Washington’s chief concern has been to prevent a ground incursion of Turkish forces into northern Iraq, which it fears could degenerate into clashes between the Turkish army and the forces of the Kurdish regional government of northern Iraq, as well as drawing in others, such as Iran.
But some US officials’ believe the risk of such a confrontation has receded since President George W. Bush met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, last month and promised him “better intelligence sharing” in the conflict against the PKK. Mr Erdogan said he was happy with Mr Bush’s support.
Analysts said the nature of the operation and the openness to discussing it suggested Turkish military leaders were confident that it had produced results.